brasher doubloon
The Brasher Doubloon (1947)

© 2008 William Ahearn

What we don’t know about Philip Marlowe, as Raymond Chandler might write, would fill the Rose Bowl Stadium. In The High Window – Chandler’s third novel and the first to be written that wasn’t based on previously published short stories – he once again presents Philip Marlowe in the role of the enigmatic and solitary private detective trying to stay detached in a sordid world. Marlowe’s world consists only of his chess games – played solo from a book – his apartment, his office, and his clients. There doesn’t seem to be much else to his character except drinking and a sarcasm that was set down on paper by one of the few masters of the genre.

And that is the deceptive brilliance of Raymond Chandler. In The High Window, Marlowe is hired by a rich and cranky dowager who believes that the estranged wife of her son has stolen a rare antique coin known as the Brasher Doubloon. In the course of his investigation, Marlowe comes across blackmailers, counterfeiters, and bodies. Numerous bodies. Those bodies lead to tales that should have been told long ago. At the end of the book, where the son who may or may not have murdered someone who deserved it tells Marlowe of the circumstances of the death, Marlowe replies:

“I’m not going to turn you in, if that’s what you mean. Beyond that I guarantee nothing. If I’m involved with it, I’ll have to face up to the situation. There’s no question of morality involved. I’m not a cop nor a common informer nor an officer of the court. You say it was an accident. Okay, it was an accident. I wasn’t a witness. I haven’t any proof either way. I’ve been working for your mother and whatever right to my silence that gives her, she can have. I don’t like her, I don’t like you, I don’t like this house, I didn’t particularly like your wife . . ..”

What I really loved about this particular Chandler novel is that Marlowe fails to get the client what the client hired him to do. There are other losses along the way not the least of which is protecting the client from serious charges and tampering with evidence to save someone else from serious charges. In a corrupt world – Marlowe seems to believe – one does what one can. In this case, it’s saving what is salvageable and here Chandler’s concept of the errant knight is apparent in Marlowe’s removing the innocent and abused young girl from the line of fire.

While that might make for an interesting novel, it wasn’t what Hollywood was offering as movies in 1947. Bringing Chandler’s novels to the screen has always been problematic for scriptwriters and in The High Window they were faced with the usual convoluted plots and conflicted characters that didn’t always lead to what some would consider a resolution. So, a damaged young woman was turned into a love interest, the MacGuffin – the Brasher Doubloon coin – was given a violent and mysterious history to almost rival the fabled black bird of The Maltese Falcon and instead of Marlowe salvaging what he can from a sordid mess, we have him with a room full of suspects and the police as he presents the evidence to unravel the case. The contrivance reeks of Miss Marple or Charlie Chan and the film ends with Marlowe getting the girl.

And some wonder why Chandler drank.

George Montgomery is a capable actor but too young and way too enthusiastic to be a convincing Philip Marlowe. Nancy Guild plays Merle Davis – a critical character in the novel now reduced to a love interest – in that same innocent ingénue way that she played Christy Smith in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s “Somewhere In The Night.” The rest of the film is littered with stock characters played by competent actors who go through the motions of a mystery film.

Yet, there is one thing that this film shows that other films based on Chandler’s films always miss. It’s a simple thing and it’s in all of his books. It’s the wind. It’s the exterior shots of Los Angeles with weather. When Marlowe goes to the house in Pasadena, the wind is blowing the leaves across the lawn. In an interior shot, Marlowe has his back to a window and fronds rustling in the wind are apparent through the glass. Chandler always tipped his hat to the nature around him whether it was wind or rain or day or night.

In a letter to James Sandoe, dated December 7, 1950 and published in The Raymond Chandler Papers, Chandler writes:

“You should by all means catch ‘The Bicycle Thief,’ and if possible, an English picture called ‘I Know Where I’m Going,’ shot largely on the west coast of Scotland – the coast that faces the Hebrides. I’ve never seen a picture which smelled of the wind and rain in quite this way, nor one which so beautifully exploited the kind of scenery people actually live with, rather than the kind which is commercialized as a show place.”

Having stumbled across Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s classic “The Edge of the World” not long ago – and being really impressed with it – I decided to see “I Know Where I’m Going” to see what Chandler was talking about. The film takes place in and around Kiloran Island, in Hebrides, Scotland and explores the myths and mores of the island folk as told through the journey of a young woman – a stranger to the island – on her way to marry an older rich man. Powell and Pressburger really know how to make movies and what would be a simple romantic comedy in lesser hands becomes a story about people and the way they live far from the rest of the world. The characters are so well drawn and the environment so rich in detail that it becomes part of the story instead of a backdrop to it. That’s what I think Chandler was referring to and if you read his novels those elements are always there.

And just about everyone who made a film based on a Chandler novel missed it.

(Note: “The Bicycle Thief” (1948) is by Vittorio De Sica and is now a classic and “I Know Where I’m Going” (1945) is from the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and available on DVD.)

William Ahearn